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Justice Department Investigating How Colleges Use Early-Decision Admissions


Recently we talked about the college admissions process and the growing use of wait lists. On the other side of the equation? Early-decision programs, where colleges and universities accept students early in the process and kids commit right away. But the Department of Justice wants to know whether schools are taking advantage of the process by sharing information about those early-decision applicants and whether that could be a violation of antitrust laws. Melissa Korn writes about higher education for The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to the program.

MELISSA KORN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Let's name some names. Which schools are being investigated for doing this? And what exactly does DOJ suspect them of doing?

KORN: Sure. So late last week, the Department of Justice contacted at least seven schools that we've been able to identify. And naming names, we've got Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Wellesley, Grinnell and Pomona. And Department of Justice has at this point just asked them to preserve a bunch of communications, documents, emails about their agreements they have with one another or perhaps with other schools about what information they'll share regarding admitted early-decision students.

So the schools say they do it. They share, you know, the names and high schools of these kids to make sure that other schools aren't considering them. Because these students have already committed to, say, Amherst, so they can't apply and try to go to Williams now instead. The early decision is a binding contract.

CORNISH: I guess I'm trying to understand what Justice thinks would be an antitrust violation in all this.

KORN: It's not entirely clear why they're going after this. And the schools themselves that I've spoken with are a little perplexed. The one kind of line of reasoning that we've been able to figure out so far is perhaps there's an assumption that these schools are limiting the choices of consumers, in this case, the students, by withdrawing applications on their behalf or talking about them to other schools and saying, no, you can't accept this kid.

CORNISH: You've covered this beat for a long time. Do you think there's a reason to be suspicious? I mean, is it been a long practice for schools to talk to each other about applicants?

KORN: Schools have talked to each other about applicants for a long time. There are plenty of concerns, and some of which are very valid, about the early-decision process not on antitrust grounds, but on equality terms. You know, if you commit to a school early, you can't compare financial aid offers. If you go to a school without robust college counseling, you might not know to apply early or know the whole process. So there's plenty of those concerns.

CORNISH: At the same time, the Department of Justice is supporting a lawsuit against Harvard over its application process. I believe that is a - involves race in admissions. Do you see any kind of political motive here, in terms of this administration paying closer attention to what's going on at elite universities?

KORN: You know, it's not entirely clear what the motive is here. I think this administration does look at higher ed. a little bit differently than the prior administration. But whether they're intentionally going after a certain school or a certain type of school, I don't think we can say quite yet.

CORNISH: We're early in this process. But do you think that this scrutiny by DOJ is going to make other schools a little more cautious around the early-decision process?

KORN: Maybe there will be some more flexibility down the line. Schools are recognizing the scrutiny. A couple of schools, Cal Poly, for example, last year dropped its early-decision program, just knowing that perhaps it wasn't totally fair to all applicants. So whether it's because of the equality concerns or concerns about scrutiny from the federal government, I think schools are carefully considering the practices.

CORNISH: Melissa Korn writes about higher education for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you for speaking with us.

KORN: Thanks so much for having me.